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Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a common disease of the liver. It occurs when there is too much fat in the liver. If NAFLD is severe, it can cause liver damage that seems like the damage caused by drinking too much alcohol. However, NAFLD is not caused by drinking alcohol. This sheet tells you more about NAFLD and how it can be managed.
The liver is an organ located in the upper right side of the belly (abdomen). It has many important jobs. These include:
Breaking down (metabolizing) proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
Making a substance called bile that helps break down fats
Storing and releasing sugar (glucose) into the blood to give the body energy
Removing toxins from the blood
Helping with blood clotting
A healthy liver may contain some fat. But if too much fat builds up in the liver, this causes NAFLD. NAFLD can be mild, causing fatty liver. Or it can be more severe and show inflammation, as well as the fat, and cause non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
Fatty liver. With fatty liver, the liver simply contains more fat than normal. This extra fat usually causes no damage to the liver.
NASH. With NASH, the fatty liver becomes inflamed over time. NASH is serious because it can lead to scarring of the liver (fibrosis). Over time, the scarring may lead to cirrhosis of the liver. This can eventually cause liver failure or liver cancer.
The cause of NAFLD is unknown. But certain risk factors make the problem more likely to occur. These include:
Prediabetes or diabetes
High levels of fat found in the blood (cholesterol and triglycerides)
Being exposed to certain medicines
Most people with NAFLD have no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they can include:
Loss of appetite
Nausea and vomiting
Belly pain and cramping
Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), as well as dark urine, or light-colored stools
Swelling in the belly or legs
Your healthcare provider may think you have NAFLD if routine blood tests show high levels of liver enzymes. This may mean that a liver problem is possible. One or more imaging tests may be done, such as an ultrasound, CT, or MRI. Additional blood tests may be done to look for other causes of liver disease. A liver biopsy may also be done. During this test, a hollow needle is used to remove a tiny tissue sample from your liver. This tissue is then checked in a lab. This test can find signs of damage involving liver tissue. It can also help figure out the cause of the damage and tell the difference between fatty liver and NASH.
Treatment for NAFLD varies for each person. The best early treatment is to treat any underlying conditions causing metabolic syndrome. This is the name for a group of conditions that includes:
High blood pressure
High levels of cholesterol and triglycerides
Being overweight or obese
Your healthcare provider will monitor your health and treat any symptoms or underlying health problems you have. Your provider will also work with you to control your risk factors so that damage to your liver is less likely. In fact, treating those underlying conditions can often improve liver disease. Certain medicines may be recommended, but no medicine will cure NAFLD. This is why treating the underlying conditions is most important. Your plan may include:
Losing extra weight
Getting regular exercise
Controlling diabetes and high cholesterol or triglyceride levels
Taking medicines and vitamins as prescribed by your provider
Not drinking alcohol
Eating a healthy and balanced diet
If NAFLD is caught early, it can be managed with treatment. Your healthcare provider will discuss further treatment options with you as needed.
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